Magazine article The American Conservative

Counterculture Conservatism: The Right Needs Less Ayn Rand, More Flannery O'Connor

Magazine article The American Conservative

Counterculture Conservatism: The Right Needs Less Ayn Rand, More Flannery O'Connor

Article excerpt

How to revive the flagging fortunes of the Republican Party might matter to some people, but it's not a question that should concern principled conservatives. Crypto-conservatives aplenty stand ready to shoulder that demeaning task. Tune in Fox News or pick up the latest issue of National Review or the Weekly Standard and you'll find them, yelping, whining, and fingering our recently reelected president as the Antichrist.

Conservatives who prefer thinking to venting--those confident that a republic able to survive eight years of George W. Bush can probably survive eight years of Barack Obama--confront a question of a different order. To wit: does authentic American conservatism retain any political viability in this country in the present age? That is, does homegrown conservatism have any lingering potential for gaining and exercising power at the local, state, or national levels? Or has history consigned the conservative tradition--as it has Marxism--to a status where even if holding some residual utility as an analytical tool, it no longer possesses value as a basis for practical action?

To which a properly skeptical reader may respond, perhaps reaching for a sidearm: exactly whose conservative tradition are you referring to, bucko?

Well, I'll admit to prejudices, so let me lay them out.

(Fans of Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman will want to stop reading here and lip to the next article. If Ronald Reagan's your hero, sorry--you won't like what's coming. Ditto regarding Ron Paul. And if in search of wisdom you rely on anyone whose byline appears regularly in any publication owned by Rupert Murdoch, well, you've picked up the wrong magazine.)

The conservative tradition I have in mind may not satisfy purists. It doesn't rise to the level of qualifying as anything so grandiose as a coherent philosophy. It's more of a stew produced by combining sundry ingredients. The result, to use a word that ought warm the cockles of any conservative's heart, is a sort of an intellectual slumgullion.

Here's the basic recipe. As that stew's principal ingredients, start with generous portions of John Quincy Adams and his grandson Henry. Fold in ample amounts of Randolph Bourne, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christopher Lasch. For seasoning, throw in some Flannery O'Connor and Wendell Berry--don't skimp. If you're in a daring mood, add a dash of William Appleman Williams. To finish, sprinkle with Frank Capra--use a light hand: too sweet and the concoction's ruined. Cook slowly. (Microwave not allowed.) What you get is a dish that is as nutritious as it is tasty.

This updated conservative tradition consists of several complementary propositions:

As human beings, our first responsibility lies in stewardship, preserving our common inheritance and protecting that which possesses lasting value. This implies an ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is transient, between what ought to endure and what is rightly destined for the trash heap. Please note this does not signify opposition to all change--no standing athwart history, yelling Stop--but fostering change that enhances rather than undermines that which qualifies as true.

Conservatives, therefore, are skeptical of anything that smacks of utopianism. They resist seduction by charlatans peddling the latest Big Idea That Explains Everything. This is particularly the case when that Big Idea entails launching some armed crusade abroad. Conservatives respect received wisdom. The passage of time does not automatically render irrelevant the dogmas to which our forebears paid heed. George Washington was no dope.

In private life and public policy alike, there exists a particular category of truths that grown-ups and grownup governments will respectfully acknowledge. For conservatives this amounts to mere common sense. Actions have consequences. Privileges entail responsibility. There is no free lunch. …

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